It is being reported by The Washington Post (among others) that President Barack Obama could order two platinum coins to be minted, each with a designated value of one trillion dollars. That’s $1,000,000,000,000.00 each. Or 10^12 dollars each, if you prefer.
These trillion dollar coins would have one purpose … to be deposited into the Federal Reserve as a payment against the debt of The United States of America, which is currently just over sixteen trillion dollars. By law, The USA can borrow up to a certain limit ($16.4 trillion.) This is known as “The Debt Ceiling”. This is no more complex than understanding how the credit limit on a credit card works – something almost all of us can relate to.
So by depositing the 2 coins, The USA will have paid $2 trillion of it’s debt, and will have no immediate need to worry about reaching its credit limit until late 2014. (As it stands today, The USA will reach its credit limit this coming February.)
According to Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin, there are no laws prohibiting The President from ordering the production of this type of currency (there are legal limitations on the production of other forms of currency.) Economist Joseph Gangon of The Peterson Institute sees nothing economically problematic with this suggested “solution” to America’s debt ceiling problem.
I have no problem admitting my ignorance on many of the nuances and specialty-areas of economics. However, with skepticism as my footing, and with my basic understanding of economics, I see a pretty significant problem.
As far as the USA’s debt is concerned, I see no difference between printing a trillion dollar coin and printing a trillion one-dollar bills. This is called inflation. It makes every dollar in circulation less valuable (the more abundant something is, the less it is worth.)
By contrast, others argue that there is no inflationary effect on this maneuver because the coins would never make it into general circulation. It is effectively a kind of barter trade between 2 government entities (The Fed and The Treasury), albeit an entirely unequal trade. (Would you satisfy two trillion of debt someone owes you in exchange for a pair of platinum coins?) Also, if this were a legitimate way to handle debt satisfaction, why stop at $2 trillion? Why not make one coin and assign it a worth $16 trillion?
The value of a dollar is based on ‘faith” (not the most favorite of words in skeptical circles.) But this is essentially the truth. If people have faith that a one-dollar bill is good for one-dollar worth of services, then it is so. But does this kind of maneuver, printing trillion dollar coins, instill more or less faith in the value of a dollar? So it doesn’t make it into circulation – does that make it any less real that there suddenly exists an additional $2 trillion? Do other countries, some of whom we take to task for ‘currency manipulation’ (cough … China … cough) feel they are getting better value when investing in our country’s treasury bills? Could The USA not be accused of its own form of manipulation?
Carl Sagan famously asked us all what the difference might be between an invisible, incorporeal, heat-less, floating dragon in a garage versus no dragon at all. The answer is … not a bit of difference. It forces me to ask what the difference might be between inventing two trillion dollars of currency to pay a debt versus not paying the debt at all. Is there any difference?
So what is the likelihood of this happening? From a political standpoint, it would be considered a very bad (and unpopular) move for The President to make. As such, it is unlikely to occur.
But the fact that Yale professors and professional economists can not see the intrinsic inflationary issues is somewhat astounding. So I am calling economic shenanigans on this idea, at least until I am shown alternate evidence so I can adjust my understanding.
Footnote: Platinum, in of itself, has value to it. You can trade one ounce of pure platinum for about $1,600. If The USA were to actually try and come up with two trillion dollars worth of platinum, that would equate to about 78 million pounds of platinum. Unrealistic, seeing as how all of the platinum mined to date equals a cube about 25 feet per side. (One cubic foot equals about 1330 pounds.) That’s, roughly, 21 million pounds of platinum mined and collected in all of human history.
To a skeptic, Hollywood is like a candy store. The most cursory of internet searches will reveal that the culture of Hollywood is infused with paranormal beliefs. As part of my never-ending SGU show prep, each week I take a look towards “Tinseltown” to see which celebrity happens to be making a total ass out of themselves at that particular moment in time. Sure it is low-hanging fruit, but just because the tree blossoms a certain way doesn’t mean we shouldn’t partake of the juicy treats.
Two of the favorite flavors of paranormal out there are ghosts and psychics. ‘Celebrity Ghost Stories’ is a hit TV show, with no shortage of actors and celebrities coming forward to tell their story about how they were afraid of shadows and bumps-in-the-night when they were 9 years old.
Psychics and celebrities seem to almost go hand in hand. These people seem to have been designed for each other. I can’t help but wonder if psychics would be as popular in our culture if famous people did not embrace such nonsense. Seriously, would we know who James Van-Praagh, or John Edward, or Sylvia Brown are if it were not for the likes of famous personalities such as Ted Danson, or Larry King, or Oprah Winfrey?
Anyway, the winner of this past week’s “Hollywood Paranormal Dupe” award has to be given to Lindsay Lohan. Lindsay Lohan has made big headlines in the last few days. She punched a woman in the face at a bar, and a judge might rule that Lohan is in violation of her probation. (If you don’t already know, and you have a morbid curiosity, just look online for her history of bad behavior.)
But Wait! … the victim of Lohan’s wrath is none other than Tiffany Ava Mitchell. Have you ever heard of Tiffany Ava Mitchell?
Of course you haven’t. She’s one of these “psychic to the celebrities”, one of (seemingly) hundreds of psychics whom claim to be the psychic of some celebrity ( … just for once, I’d like to see a psychic profess that they are a psychic to some other class - “psychic to the barbers” or “psychic of the ballroom dancers”. That would be refreshing. But I digress…)
Here are some reported “facts” on this psychic no one has ever heard of until she was punched by Ms. Lohan:
- Mitchell owns a chain of psychic reading businesses in West Palm Beach, Fla., including “Ava’s Psychic Visions.”
- She specializes in readings through tarot cards, palms and psychic energy.
- It is reported that she tried to charge a client $43,000 to cleanse their aura (client called the cops and the cops said they couldn’t do anything about it.)
- She has retained famous “lawyer to the celebrities” Gloria Alred to represent her.
So that’s it … this obscure self-proclaimed “psychic” has been elevated to the front pages of both the tabloids and mainstream media for being the punching bag of a Hollywood actress with a rap sheet as long as her freckled arm. It does not matter what happens from here on out – Mitchell’s business and career is about to take off!
And as predicted by me (ha!) no one along the way is questioning the existence of psychic abilities. Can’t let science or reality get in the way of the culture of stupid, can we? For example, take this headline from The Huffington Post on the matter:
“Tiffany Ava Mitchell: Lindsay Lohan Alleged Victim is a Psychic, Offered Actress Free Reading Before Assault”
How about this instead, HuffPo editors …
Tiffany Ava Mitchell: Lindsay Lohan Victim is an Alleged Psychic, Offered Actress Free Alleged Reading Before Assault
MUCH better, in my humble opinion. My headline is entirely accurate.
The Brown Daily Herald (BDH) is the Brown University student newspaper based out of Providence, Rhode Island. According to its Wikipedia entry, it is the second-oldest student newspaper among American college dailies. Brown University is an Ivy League school, the 7th oldest university in the United States. It is considered one of the finest universities in the nation.
This past Sunday BHD posted an article titled “From ghosts to ghostbusters, paranormal interest thrives in R.I.”
As you will read from the article, they talk about the bustling paranormal culture that is thick in Rhode Island. That is to say the ratio of paranormal organizations and practitioners to the overall population is high. Much of the credit for Rhode Island’s bustling ghost hunting community is given to SYFY Channel’s “Ghost Hunters”, for they hail from Warwick. The Ghost Hunters led an investigation at Brown University not too long ago, to the apparent delight of many people who are impressed by such undertakings.
In the middle of the article, author Gabrielle Dee offers this statement:
Understanding the paranormal consists not only of the creepy, otherworldly creatures that haunt the insides of closets, decrepit attics and corn fields that spaceships mistake as landing pads — it’s a new vision of reality.
A NEW vision of reality? No. Paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs are as old as recorded history. They are very much culturally based. They adapt and morph in almost perfect synchronicity with societies and cultures through the ages.
As far as “reality” is concerned, I suppose you could argue that people’s inherent belief in the unproven is the reality of the human condition. But reality as measured by science has filtered thousands of years of paranormal claims, with the collective sum of scientific evidence totaling Zero. None. Nada. Zilch.
The article goes on to mention another paranormal investigation group named RISEUP, a Rhode Island and Connecticut conglomerate (first I’ve ever heard of it, but no matter.) This particular group had these pearls of wisdom to offer:
It is important to keep in mind that paranormal sightings include an interpretive element, and depends on what the viewer perceives as real, he (the group’s founder) said. Religious and cultural interpretations, which give rise to what people may perceive as paranormal, must be balanced with today’s science and technology in a very logical manner, he added.
An interpretative element? The entire exercise of “ghost hunting” is interpretive. Ghost hunters whip out their recorders and thermometers and other devices with “ON” buttons and they think this is the epitome of scientific investigation. They take readings and they interpret readings based on their preconceived notions. If there is an “anomaly” of any kind, then that’s a ghost in their book. This is exactly why ghost hunting is pseudoscience. They have all the trappings of science, and they claim they are being scientific. By scientific standards, they the polar opposite of good scientific practices.
And the statement about religion and culture being “balanced with today’s science and technology in a very logical manner” … this is a very oddly phrased description. I agree that religion and culture is the driving force behind many people’s “paranormal” experiences, but why it “must be balanced” with today’s science and technology makes little sense to me. Apparently, I lack a “very logical manner” for not being able to understand exactly what is being said here.
So in summary: this article is horribly unimpressive on so many levels. It is poorly written. It has failed to adequately describe the activity of ghost hunting. It offered no skeptical perspective. It assumes ghosts are real. Their subjects offer no extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claims being made.
But perhaps worst of all is the disappointment in that one of our nation’s most impressive institutes of higher learning is catering to people’s enthrallment with pseudoscience, and simultaneously, taking advantage of people’s lack of understanding about how science REALLY works. And this is courtesy of an Ivy League university with its roots dating back to colonial times. King George III must be rolling over in his grave.
WAIT … I thought of one thing worse than my disappointment … I wish I could say I am surprised.
A natural disaster is being reported today by Reuters out of Gambia.
The President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, is putting his citizens in extreme risk by telling people that his slurry of “natural” herbs can cure people infected with HIV and/or AIDS.
He went on television this past Sunday night to proclaim that he ”…prevailed to cure HIV/AIDS to the point that 68 are being discharged today”, whatever his definition of discharge means.
This “President” is a dangerous man. He came to power as part of a bloodless coup, and has retained an iron grip on his office ever since via elections, described as ranging from having “serious shortcomings” to being deemed “not fair or free”.
Aside from his despotic rise, he fancies himself a medicine man - so his declarations of being able to cure HIV and AIDS using herbs is not new (he’s been boasting this since 2007). Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this tyrant’s “medical advice” is that he is convincing (i.e. intimidating) infected people to stop taking their antiretroviral drugs.
He has hob-nobed with the likes of The President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -not surprising since the government of Iran has also declared “drug-free” cures for HIV and AIDS (birds of a feather?) - and they have both boasted of a deepening cooperation between their regimes. Fortunately, they have since parted ways since those crazy 2007 days (the only silver lining in this whole post.)
There is no ambiguity on where he stands on homosexuality. He has threatened to cut off the heads of any homosexual he finds in his country. He has all the humanitarianism of a school of piranha.
Still not convinced of the quality of this person? Well then, take a second and absorb this quote from Gambia’s president:
”If you don’t believe in God, you can never be grateful to humanity and you are even below a pig.”
Folks, this person can’t disappear from the earth fast enough. In the meantime, the natural disaster and living nightmare that is the reign of Yahya Jammeh continues, to the collective detriment of the world, and most immediately, the HIV infected citizens of Gambia.
My friend Mark sent an article my way today via Facebook. Courtesy of The Hartford Courant (the oldest continually running newspaper in America, for the moment), their ‘Business’ section of the website reports that a local engineer is manufacturing “hand held devices” for “effects associated with paranormal.” That is the “business” side of the story.
The other side of the report is that the engineer was inspired to create these devices due to the death of his 17-year old daughter back in 2004. Since that time, he has seen and heard things which he can only interpret as the spirit of his daughter trying to communicate with family members.
Mark’s first thought about the matter was that of sadness. Mark’s second thought suggested the notion is preposterous. I agree with Mark and his assessment of the priority of these two very different aspects of the article.
George Hrab just gave a fantastic talk at NECSS this past weekend about the subject of the loss of loved ones, and the grief and pain associated with such losses. The Courant article is quite timely in this regard, as I try to borrow George’s wisdom and add those pearls to my own set of thoughts on the matter. One of George’s many points was that people have a tendency not to talk about death and all of its unappealing aspects, arguably the worst of which is the sense of pain felt by the bereaved. We are very clumsy and socially unrehearsed when put in the position of having to interact with people in such a state of mind.
I was able to summarize, if not reinforce the thoughts I had before George’s talk, that there are no easy answers to questions concerning the complexities of the human psyche. This may seem a rather obvious thought upon reading, but we have to continually remind ourselves that humans have a tendency to seek out the easiest of answers from a given set of possibilities. This seems especially true when our emotions are in compromised states. I liken this to our pattern seeking tendencies - where the human brain has a disposition to make order out of, what is otherwise, chaos. We want to find reasons for things which may, in reality, have no reasons at all.
With this in mind, I don’t think we need to analyze why the father is interpreting the sound of a ringing doorbell, or the sight of the television changing channels as something paranormal. In my book, he gets a pass, and should not be the object of criticism or ridicule.
The second, and less important, aspect of the story is the engineering, and hence, the apparent “business” side of the story. Although I could go off on a rant about how The Courant did a poor job of reporting and categorizing this story, I will hold off on that for perhaps another day when I talk about the “rag” status of this newspaper.
Strictly from an engineering position, or more simply a general scientific position, I would like to see the test results for these devices. There is no mention in the article about how it has been proven that any of his devices work. There is no information concerning the mechanisms at action in such devices. It is taken for granted that ghost-detecting devices actually work at detecting anything other than mundane phenomena.
The story was also covered on television this past weekend as an episode of ‘Ghost Adventurers’, which airs on The Travel Channel. One of the quotes in the article from the host of the tv show reads:
“Gary is a very, very talented electrical engineer and he’s helped companies, massive companies, in that aspect in order to do things better.”
This is an argument from authority logical fallacy. Gary might be a talented electrical engineer, but this is not a way of proving that the technology actually works. What really matters are tests, results, unbiased data, and replication. Then we can start to have a serious conversation about the technology being accepted as genuine by the likes of the business section of The Hartford Courant.
Did the writer not think to reach out to organizations skeptical of these claims for an alternate point of view?
Perhaps he did, yet this being a rather uncomfortable subject to try and tackle (especially from a business standpoint), perhaps he made a decision, either consciously or subconsciously, to avoid one of the stickier facets of the story. Lets face it, its hard to ask tough questions – questions that contradict the claims of the claimant, even for the sake of playing devil’s advocate - of a person so grieved.
And this goes back to one of George’s points again: people are generally poor and clumsy communicators when it comes to the things they say to other people when the subject pertains to the death of loved ones.
I could go off further and on different tangents regarding this story, but I’m cutting myself short to help preserve the main point I am trying to drive home, which is this …
Good skeptics work hard at trying to understand the world around us, and in that search for a more complete comprehension of the cosmos, we remain mindful of human nature, inclusive of human culture, and understanding of human imperfections.